Photo: Marnie Shure, Graphic: Emma McKhann

Welcome to Old Folks Food Week, where we resurrect and celebrate the delicious dishes of yore.


There’s a pretty clear consensus around which candies old people like—that is, it’s a category distinct from what the younger set enjoys. We picture these outmoded sweets sitting in dusty, cut-glass bowls atop lace doilies, not in our own grocery baskets. The extreme flavors of today’s sour pucker powders and bold combinations of sweet and savory hold less allure for the utterly practical generation that now finds itself in its twilight years—but that doesn’t mean their candies don’t deserve a thorough reinvestigation. And as someone who gained 15 pounds one summer when a vintage candy shop blew through her college town, I feel uniquely qualified (or at least uniquely determined) to conduct that investigation.

We shall proceed chronologically through the usual geriatric suspects, beginning with the candies that were already stalwarts when our grandparents were born, and on through the treats that make the Boomers misty-eyed. How wonderful that “old people” as a category can encompass so many of us!

Let’s begin far back in our nation’s history with that most beloved of total bullshit candies: the Necco wafer.


Necco Wafers

Debuted: 1847 (known as “Hub Wafers” until 1912, after their merger with the New England Confectionery Company)

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Gastronomic Experience: Labored. Produced in the same manner that pharmacists once used to slice pill dough, a roll of Necco wafers truly is like trying to nibble your way through a pack of Tylenol. Often described as “chalky,” another apt descriptor would be “crumbly”; my roll opened to a pile of shards. And though I was promised seven distinct flavors—which are their own time capsule, including lemon, orange, clove, cinnamon, wintergreen, licorice, and chocolate—the contents were 90-percent wintergreen, a flavor that tends to overpower even the pungent licorice varietal.

My Working Theory On Why Old People Like It: Neccos were supplied to Union soldiers in the Civil War and American troops in WWII. You feel almost divinely connected to tradition as you work your way through one of these things, and they’re not worthy of rage so much as indifference—so let’s let America’s elderly have this one. (For now, anyway: the fate of the Massachusetts plant hangs in the balance amid corporate changeovers.)


Goetze’s Caramel Creams

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Debuted: 1895

Gastronomic Experience: Accommodating. Caramel is simply not my thing (more on that later), but this candy seems positively designed to win over holdouts like me. The true genius lies in its dusting of something (Flour? Sugar? Sawdust?) that keeps the caramel unsticky, and its slice-off-the-log production method keeps the outer layer dense and chewy, rather than stretching into ugly thin tendrils as you pull your teeth away. The ratio of cream in the center has always felt generous, too: a benevolent offering to those deepest caramel skeptics among us. (This is not true of the 1980s variant, Cow Tales, whose longer, thinner rope of caramel and cream is just not as fun to sink your teeth into.)

My Working Theory On Why Old People Like It: In 1895, the development of the Hydrox (and its later imitator, the Oreo) was just on the horizon, and the public’s fascination with cream (creme?) would prove insatiable. I imagine Goetze simply capitalized on a restless nation’s latent craze for the silky vanilla substance—and I’m more than happy they did.

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Tootsie Roll

Debuted: 1907 (the nation’s first individually wrapped penny candy!)

Gastronomic Experience: Suspicious. To a chocolate purist, these always felt like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I can appreciate their subtleties more as an adult, but would still never willingly select one from the Halloween bowl. They’re “chocolate” insofar as they are brown, but the small amount of cocoa produces a molasses flavor more than anything else. The larger logs have a better texture than the more ubiquitous midgees (yes, that is what they’re called), but beyond that, the Tootsie Roll’s biggest asset is the one that landed it in every WWII soldier’s rations: it lasts a long time and won’t melt.

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My Working Theory On Why Old People Like It: Because… it lasts a long time and won’t melt?


Nik-L-Nip

Debuted: Early 20th century

Gastronomic Experience: Half-edible. The most bountiful ingredient in these syrup-filled bottles is “refined wax.” I’m shocked to find that the packaging actually encourages you to chew on the wax bottle like gum once the juice has been sucked out of it. The wax has a pleasing consistency, but the flavorlessness is a reminder you that what you’re chewing on is meant to be spat out rather than swallowed—so why go through the trouble? This is candy we’re talking about, not bubble gum or mouthwash or Skoal.

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My Working Theory On Why Old People Like It: The candy’s namesake is its original price, hearkening back to the days of sweet shops that would fill a small white sack with 25 cents’ worth of delicacies. A Nik-L-Nip, like a peppermint stick or a Tootsie Pop, could be stretched out to fill entire minutes with delight. (Though I’d be shocked if I actually saw a retiree chawing away at some juice-stained wax at their present age.)


Chuckles

Debuted: 1921

Gastronomic Experience: Sugar. Every Chuckles package comes with one jelly of each flavor (the standard cherry/lemon/lime/orange, plus the dreaded and divisive licorice), but all you really get is the taste of corn syrup. I’d love to talk to some food scientists about the advancements in flavoring ingredients starting around the 1980s, allowing for more intense varieties. For now, all I can say is that, while I respect any candy that has so doggedly refused a package redesign in its 100 years on this planet, it’s no good sign that the black licorice Chuckle is the only distinctive one of the bunch and thus the most appreciated. With its crust of sugar and its pillow-soft chew, I can actually see the value of this particular flavor profile in the candy landscape. (Black Twizzlers and Crows never did this much to sway me.)

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My Working Theory On Why Old People Like It: A super-yielding treat, a single Chuckle is enough to satisfy a sweet tooth without filling you up too much. See also: Orange Slices, Circus Peanuts, and chewy strawberry bon bons. (Plus, the panache with which my grandma always said the word “Chuckles” means it might be a treat even more fun to talk about than eat.)


Abba-Zaba

Debuted: 1922

Gastronomic Experience: Infuriatingly satisfying. How on earth can the ultra-creamy peanut butter center jive so well with its taffy surroundings? How does this candy get away with being a uniform snowy white while imparting none of the typically “white” flavors of vanilla or coconut, and yet we’re all more than okay with it? How do they make sure the taffy has just enough sweetness to complement the sweet-savory peanut butter center without overpowering or distracting from it? Annabelle, a candy company specializing in taffy bars (Big Hunk is also an Annabelle product), puts all its talents on display in this bar where other contemporary peanut butter treats fail. All this praise, of course, comes with the classic candy caveat: You have to find a fresh one. You’re not getting your teeth through a stale Abba-Zaba. (Tip: It’s well worth your time to treat the candy shop like the produce aisle at the grocery store: poke, squeeze, and rap your knuckles on the product before you buy it. Your hard-earned quarters shouldn’t go to anything less than taffy you can actually chew.)

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My Working Theory On Why Old People Like It: As Abba-Zabas are primarily available in the western half of the country, I can’t picture my own Midwestern relations gnawing away on these things. But I love the idea that at least some portion of the Abba-Zaba-eating population prefers it for one devilish reason: taffy bars are almost impossible to share.


Bit-O-Honey

Debuted: 1924

Gastronomic Experience: New for me, and a damned delight. It’s the almond bits that make this honey taffy sing; otherwise it might risk the muted flavors of a saltwater taffy (charming in its own way, but not particularly interesting). Even the freshest Mary Jane or Squirrel Nut Zipper can’t match the smooth texture of a Bit-O-Honey. Among my fellow millennials, I can see why this is a quiet favorite. “Oh, I love eating those at my grandma’s house,” you might hear—so why do we keep them relegated to such a passive experience? Let’s be more proactive about this treat. Maybe I’ll supply a bowl of them at my next party, between the M&Ms and Sour Patch Kids (teenage slumber parties are my go-to entertaining inspo).

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My Working Theory On Why Old People Like It: These little guys bridge the generational gap. An understated flavor that makes it easy to eat a whole bag, and unthreatening to your dental work when eaten fresh. Hydrogenated coconut oil, we salute you!


Sugar Daddy

Debuted: 1925 (Marketed for its first 7 years under the name Papa Sucker, a fact so delightful I’m going to start yelling it at cocktail parties)

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Gastronomic Experience: Flat. As mentioned above, caramel is a subcategory I’ve never connected with. It’s one-note; its aftertaste is undesirable; and I mostly worry about my teeth as I eat it (even if I never chomp down on its unforgiving surface). Sugar Daddy checked pretty much all those boxes and principally seemed to stimulate the production of saliva. My only positive association with Sugar Daddies will continue to be Homer Simpson’s struggle to remove one stuck to his back.

My Working Theory On Why Old People Like It: Just like so many candies of the era, it lasts a hell of a long time. Sitting through a feature-length film with one of these sounds mighty economical. And the shape lends itself to sucking more than both spherical and circular lollipops.


Red Hots

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Debuted: 1930s

Gastronomic Experience: Spicy. Which is, of course, the point, but cinnamon flavors always screamed “toothpaste” more than “dessert” to me. Taste-testing Red Hots now, the appeal is clear, but limited. Who wants to sit at the movie theater sweating through an entire box of spicy cinnamon Red Hots? The individually wrapped Atomic Fireballs (also from the Ferrara Candy Company) make a lot more sense as an eye-watering one-off.

My Working Theory On Why Old People Like It: With flames across the package promising an inferno of flavor, I think Red Hots were probably just a nice mid-century shorthand for “I’m a cool teen who isn’t afraid to be a little bad.” They might also have doubled as a breath mint if you and your squeeze wanted to neck up in the balcony during The Maltese Falcon.

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Dad’s Root Beer Barrels

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Debuted: Unknown (My internet research led me nowhere; Dad’s Root Beer debuted in 1937, but surely root beer barrels as a candy existed prior to this particular soft drink brand)

Gastronomic Experience: Heightened. I couldn’t make it all the way through a single barrel, but for good reason: the flavors were so strong, I began to feel the herbal ingredients making my mouth go slightly tingly and numb. That is a very cool thing for a non-sour hard candy to achieve! Molasses, anise, licorice, and sassafrass hit your palate with escalating intensity. It’s not a flavor I want all that often, but I’m sure that when the craving hits, there’s nothing else for it.

My Working Theory On Why Old People Like It: This flavor profile feels frozen in time, just like a good bottle of root beer does. There’s nothing chemical about its taste, only the pure mixture of sugar and spice. The nation’s grandparents seek the real deal, and these deliver.

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Dots

Debuted: 1945

Gastronomic Experience: Unpredictable. There’s quite a gulf between a fresh Dot and a stale one, the latter of which were the only ones available at my childhood second-run movie theater (but it didn’t stop me from downing a box during 1997’s Bean). A stale Dot gains a chalky exterior and wages a Jujube-esque battle with one’s teeth. A fresh one, meanwhile, has a pleasing springiness that lends it at least one endearing quality. Present in both, however, is the one true flavor that overwhelms any notes of cherry, lemon, strawberry, lime, or orange: the taste of its cardboard packaging.

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My Working Theory On Why Old People Like It: When you think of the very concept of candy, you inevitably think of glass jars full of gumdrops. Inoffensive and bright, Dots will probably always enjoy their status as some of the most classic and quintessential sweets money can buy.


Smarties

Debuted: 1949

Gastronomic Experience: Dependable. Smarties are heralded as “America’s favorite candy roll,” which seems like a direct swipe at Necco wafers. If so, it’s well earned; these little wafers pack more flavor into far less surface area, and the chalkiness works to the candy’s advantage, offering more give and allowing the tablet to dissolve in your mouth. I couldn’t begin to tell you what each flavor is supposed to be, and consulting the internet, I’m shocked by the nonconventional lineup of orange, cherry, strawberry, grape, pineapple (!), and orange cream (!!). To me, it’s all one generically fruity landscape, with one interesting wrench thrown in: Does anyone else taste random bursts of salt when they swallow the last little granules of each tablet? I always have, though somehow it’s never been a deterrent.

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My Working Theory On Why Old People Like It: For parents who fretted about their children’s health, these unassuming discs were never the Big Bad Wolf. No kid ever ripped out their fillings or got nauseous off a roll of Smarties. From childhood to parenthood to grandparenthood, Smarties are just so reliably there.


Chick-O-Stick

Debuted: 1950s

Gastronomic Experience: Oddly familiar. From the first bite, the thought is, they should just market this as a Naked Butterfinger. With a little more coconut flavor thrown in for good measure, this candy bar is just a chocolateless version of the Nestle classic. And a robe of chocolate does a lot to keep the crumbly orange substance contained when you bite into it; the shrapnel-esque byproduct of a Chick-O-Stick necessitates caution while eating. The flavors are interesting and balanced, but the consistency is almost a distraction, with long ribbons at its core forming a porous center that splinters first into shards, then into dust while chewing. It is the Cheetos of candy.

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My Working Theory On Why Old People Like It: Coconut used to get a lot more respect around the candy landscape due to its relative rarity, and this is just one more example of a context in which it can really shine. The current spate of gourmet jars of peanut butter swirled with Nutella, cinnamon, honey, and white chocolate flavorings have largely snubbed coconut as a possible pairing, but the humble and enduring Chick-O-Stick is surely evidence that there’s a market for it.


Of course this list comprises but a glimpse into the century’s more indelible offerings, but hopefully it’s exonerated at least a few of the candies more prone to modern scrutiny. The generation that prioritized aspics and deviled everything actually had it right with their patronage of these long-lasting and consistently flavorful (or at least consistently sweet) candies in a range of textures and tastes. They could stretch out a dollar to 20 Tootsie Rolls, and they could savor a Starlight mint until the last. What’s not to admire?

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